Many movies deal with children confronted with the horrors of humanity–wartime, racism, poverty, crime. Yet, in its own quiet way, Jacques Doillon’s diminutive Ponette is among the most powerful of them all, simply because it gets the details of childhood correct. It also never shirks away from the toughest images of abject grief. One should be warned: it’s pretty nigh impossible not to view this movie through a sheen of constantly falling tears. Victoire Thivisol, in the title role, was only four years old when the film was shot, and this must be regarded as a miracle. It’s tempting to read up on how Doillon actually elicited this highly emotional work from such a young soul, but to do so might spoil our impressions of Thivisol as a performer (she would take the 1996 top prize at the Venice Film Festival–as far as I know, the youngest actor to ever win any sort of major award). And this is deserved: by any measure, as her performance is unforgettable.
The film is exceedingly, wonderfully simple. With a tiny cast on her forearm, Ponette is the survivor of a car crash that took her mother’s life. As the film begins, her father (Xavier Beauvois) is comforting her in her hospital bed, and getting ready to drive her back to a boarding school. He expresses anger at his deceased wife–one senses that their relationship was on the skids anyway–while Ponette is still unable to accept that her mother is gone forever. As a parting show of love, she gives her daddy her teddy bear to keep, and he gives her his watch, which she sweetly keeps on her wrist throughout the picture. Doillon then follows this girl, with his camera wisely never lifting above her eyeline, as she struggles to come to terms with her loss.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once broke down the approach of death into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One can see each of these stages illustrated here in Ponette’s journey, too, never with a heavy hand and in very much the same order. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes have her on the playground with her classmates, navigating this process. The film is filled with nominal talk of God and Jesus, and Heaven–both the adults and the kids indulge in this–and we get the sense that Ponette is alternately comforted, confused and infuriated by some of this stuff (at one point, she chides a teacher for feeding her lies). One bossy girl sends Ponette on a playground obstacle course where the ground is a lava pit of Hell, and where there are only scattered islands of safety to which to jump. Her nominal “boyfriend” Mathias listens as she expresses her mind-twisting sadness, and then he kisses her cheek, comforting her in a scene of such aching intimacy that we’re both amused and relieved when he decides to give her his most prized possession: a Batman toy. “You’re nutty, but nice,” he says. All of this dovetails in a superb scene where Mathias and Carla decide to give Ponette one final test, exiling her to a trash bin for five minutes, to replicate the feeling of death and to strengthen her bravery. Just when we think the film is being unimaginably cruel, her friends find pity for the weeping Ponette and rescue her, excitedly telling her she’s passed muster (and Doillon even finds it possible to wring some laughs from the situation).
To imagine Doillon actually writing this movie–well, it’s nearly unthinkable because he’s got the strange logic and cadence of childhood thought and speech down perfectly. There’s no way that the film was improvised–we know that’s just not an option–yet everything feels ridiculously authentic. We’re forced into realizing that this filmmaker has got a preternatural connection to the world of childhood (and, again, I can’t stress enough the intelligence he shows with his always-close-to-the ground camera, as well as his light hand with Phillippe Sarde’s gentle score). I love the scene where a group of girls are having a giggly but somehow mature nighttime talk about boys and then, later, try and hoodwink Mathias into “marriage” with Carla (“You’re like daddies,” one girl tells him. “You don’t like love,” and then another girl takes offense: “My daddy likes love”). But then we’re stunned when a playground bully produces a pretty realistic toy gun and then pushes Ponette around, blaming her for her mother’s death. This is rough going here, and unlike anything ever seen in cinema–lithe, but mean.
Still, the moments in which Thivisol, alone, commands the screen are the film’s jewels (and she’s in nearly every shot, often in extreme close-up). The pain and turmoil on her frankly adorable face are imminently palpable throughout, and her tears are a real trial for the filmgoer. This is not a movie to watch lightly. And just when Ponette’s depression gets absolutely unbearable–to the point where she discusses with Mathias her wish to die, and then later begins digging in the dirt to join her mother–Doillon provides us with a release valve for all this unrelenting sadness and tension. It’s a twist that’s totally believable, and totally welcome, and it leads Ponette to the only place she really can go–to a nook where she can learn to live again.
NOTE: this review originally appeared in 2015 as part of WONDERS IN THE DARK's genre overview called THE CINEMA OF CHILDHOOD. Check the whole lineup out here: